Language Barriers

There’s no denying that the language barrier is one of the major points that one needs to consider before moving to another country. How will one feel when one is no longer able to carry out simple, everyday tasks, like going to the bank, or calling a locksmith? In a world where you don’t speak the dominant language, simple tasks can be overwhelmingly daunting. 

I’ve seen two approaches to this:

  1. Take language courses and become as proficient as possible in the new language, without full-time study.
  2. Learn a survival version of the language. Enough to be able to function in shops, restaurants, and taxis.

As an expat blogger in Korea, it’s pretty much my duty to encourage you to learn as much Korean as you can. I feel a little awkward doing so, as I’ve fallen quite heavily on the survival Korean side of things. I blame how little time I have to spare, but I know that there are are options for me. There are podcasts and free lessons, language exchanges and formal classes, online lessons and Skype and…

The list goes on. To be honest, there isn’t an excuse for not learning Korean.

Except…

The language barrier can be, at times, an extension of the ‘waygook card’ – an excuse, an easy out, a get out of jail free card. It can mean skipping out on long, drawn-out meetings, or avoiding office politics (which exist because… well… because humans)

For example, there was a very loud disagreement (or voice of dissent, or just some general unpleasantness) in my office recently. Earlier that same day, I found myself sat with some of my coteachers in a coffee shop. They proceeded to discuss a matter that, by the tone and by what I did pick up, was a general vent about a situation at school.

While neither of those situations was terribly comfortable to be in, I was still able (to an extent) to go about my business as though these issues did not exist. Steering clear of internal disagreements is a tricky path to navigate, and the language barrier simplifies the issue somewhat.

Simply put, I found myself in an interesting situation over the last few days of both desperately wanting to understand more, and wishing that I understood less. While my overall advice to newcomers to Korea is to learn Korean, I would also advise you to not be too hasty in letting on just how much you understand. 

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4 thoughts on “Language Barriers

  1. I agree, at the very least. People living here should probably be encouraged to learn at least the basics in Korean. Like ordering food, taxis, and buying things. But for short term living there isn’t much incentive to learn it because such a small percentage of the globe speaks korean. If you do speak it, definitely keep it a secret from your school!

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  2. Interesting points! I’ve studied my fair share and done some language exchanges since coming here, but am nowhere near conversation level. At the very least, I think people need to learn the basics and the alphabet (it’s so easy!)
    It’s definitely a huge advantage to play dumb, sometimes, though. I’m down for anything that makes my life less stressful 😉

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  3. Interesting points. I honestly can’t think of a time where it would have been better that I didn’t understand what was going on around me. Being able to speak and understand Korean is a huge source of pride for my school, and not only do they trust me infinitely more and treat me as an equal and colleague, they brag about me to other schools! I can go on and on about the benefits of knowing Korean here. Even in awkward / bad situations, it only helps that I can understand their native tongue. It strengthens and matures our communication.

    I don’t expect every foreigner to learn Korean, but I’m kind of tired of people justifying not learning it by saying things like “it’s really not that useful” or “sometimes it’s better to play it dumb.” I just think those things are silly. Just own up to not knowing it because you don’t want to know it and leave it at that. That’s a good enough reason in my eyes, and I don’t judge anyone who doesn’t learn it.

    It’s just that when reasons like that are given, I feel like it belittles and demeans people that actually have worked really hard to learn the language.

    I hope that makes sense, and didn’t come off like I was attacking you. 🙂 I just have a lot to say on the matter, and being in the minority here, I felt like I had to say something.

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    • It does make sense. I certainly didn’t feel you were attacking me, and I think you’ve succinctly spoken for the benefits of learning the language. Had I been placed in a more conventional school, I would probably feel as you do (and I would also probably have learnt a lot more than I have).

      This post was mostly based on the fact that my inability to speak Korean in the coffee shop venting story, (which was behind the creation of this post) was more of a protection than a hindrance. Between what I already knew, what I picked up and the general tone, I was incredibly grateful for the fact that the language barrier prevented me from having to take a stance on the issue. The matter under discussion was very thorny. While I have very strong feelings on the matter, the matter is not one that directly concerns me, and voicing my feelings would simply have added one extra voice to the cacophony.

      I hope I don’t sound defensive. To be honest, this scenario was the only one where I’ve been so grateful to not speak Korean.

      I also didn’t want to seem like I was belittling people who put in the effort to learn Korean! I’m sorry if it came across that way 😦 I have nothing but respect and admiration for those who go to all the effort it takes to learn it.

      [As an aside – I suspect that the role of the native teachers at my school is somewhat different to what it would be elsewhere, and that colours my view of the issues as well.]

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